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Divergent Plate Boundaries in the Oceans

Plates diverging in the oceans leads to seafloor spreading and on a continent leads to continental rifting.

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Divergent Plate Boundaries in the Oceans

How could you walk between two plates?

On a bridge! Let’s get off the Atlantis in Iceland. It's good to feel solid ground beneath our feet again! While in Iceland we'll take a walk on Leif the Lucky Bridge. Why did we sail across the ocean for this? Iceland is one place where a mid-ocean ridge is found above sea level.

Plate Divergence in the Ocean

Iceland provides us with a fabulous view of a mid-ocean ridge above sea level (Figure below) As you can see, where plates diverge at a mid-ocean ridge is a rift valley that marks the boundary between the two plates. Basalt lava erupts into that rift valley and forms new seafloor. Seafloor on one side of the rift is part of one plate and seafloor on the other side is part of another plate.

Iceland is the one location where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is located on land

Iceland is the one location where the ridge is located on land: the Mid-Atlantic Ridge separates the North American and Eurasian plates

Leif the Lucky Bridge straddles the divergent plate boundary. Look back at the photo at the top. You may think that the rock on the left side of the valley looks pretty much like the rock on the right side. That’s true – it’s all basalt and it even all has the same magnetic polarity. The rocks on both sides are extremely young. What’s different is that the rock one side of the bridge is the youngest rock of the North American Plate while the rock on the other side is the youngest rock on the Eurasian plate.

This is a block diagram of a divergent plate boundary. Remember that most of these are on the seafloor and only in Iceland do we get such a good view of a divergent plate boundary in the ocean.

Convection Cells at Divergent Plate Boundaries

Remember that the mid-ocean ridge is where hot mantle material upwells in a convection cell. The upwelling mantle melts due to pressure release to form lava. Lava flows at the surface cool rapidly to become basalt, but deeper in the crust, magma cools more slowly to form gabbro. The entire ridge system is made up of igneous rock that is either extrusive or intrusive. The seafloor is also igneous rock with some sediment that has fallen onto it.

Earthquakes are common at mid-ocean ridges since the movement of magma and oceanic crust results in crustal shaking.

USGS animation of divergent plate boundary at mid-ocean ridge: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/animations/animation.php?flash_title=Divergent+Boundary&flash_file=divergent&flash_width=500&flash_height=200.

Divergent plate boundary animation: http://www.iris.edu/hq/files/programs/education_and_outreach/aotm/11/AOTM_09_01_Divergent_480.mov.


  • Oceanic plates diverge at mid-ocean ridges. New seafloor is created in the rift valley between the two plates.
  • Lava cools to form basalt at the top of the seafloor. Deeper in the crust the magma cools more slowly to form gabbro.
  • Iceland is a location where we can see a mid-ocean ridge above sea level.

Making Connections

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Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.


  1. What happens at divergent plate boundaries?
  2. What happens in the early stages of a divergent plate boundary?
  3. The speaker makes a mistake at around 1:20 in the video. What is it?
  4. Be aware that when the speaker is talking about hotspots he referring to places that are hot, not a hotspot like Hawaii. What happens to the material that is hot?
  5. How does the hot material break through the lithosphere?
  6. What forms first as the crust pulls apart? What is a famous example of this?
  7. What is the Red Sea?
  8. When the rift valley is submerged what is it called?
  9. How does an ocean like the Atlantic form?


  1. What is the direction of plate motion at a divergent plate boundary?
  2. Describe the relationship between the convection cell and volcanism at the mid-ocean ridge.
  3. Why is the Leif the Lucky bridge so interesting?

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